Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 6: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Striped Drinks | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 6 :  Toulouse-Lautrec’s Striped Drinks

Proust calls Charlus the soul of indiscretion:
A recognition that the Baron’s knack
For scandal is a cornucopia
Of gifts for any novelist. In life,
Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou, a model,
If not the only model, for Charlus,
Was what Proust might have been, a minor writer
Of precious things, though Montesquiou, who had
No qualms about his own proclivities,
Would doubtless have conceived the urge to bind
A book of his slight writings in the cloth
Of some boy’s underpants. Yet Proust would not
Have been so at his ease. The portrait by
Boldini is a stunner. Montesquiou
Is dressed to kill. Regard the grey kid gloves,
The points of his moustache like daggers raised
Against the march of the ill-bred. A shame
That he was never caught in his white suit
By Whistler, though the portrait in the Frick
Of Montesquiou in evening dress is held
By some to outclass even the Boldini
For sheer cool, the Bad Baron at his height
Of glamour. Still, the way that he appears —
The angle of his cane, that black foulard —
Today in the Musée d’Orsay, suffices
To show us why Proust ate the concept up
Of dandyism as a form of art,
And, later, spat it out. The exquisite,
In Proust’s eyes, was a realm designed for women,
And Charlus in decay, mascara smeared,
Tells us that being gay was not, for Proust,
A way of life, but just a part of life,
And any monomania would be punished
By a withering within. Thus, on the heights,
Where those whose greatest aim is to hobnob
With one another and keep others out,
The anti-Dreyfusards have sacrificed
Their main advantage — to have no ideas —
And where they once could revel in the freedom
Of judging everything by style alone —
Essentially, to do so was their style —
Now they are hampered by a theory
Of Jewish sabotage. But Proust, although
No saboteur — he loved the ormolu
And mirrors with gilt frames a mile too much
To seek a refuge in bohemia,
Though that’s precisely where he’s ended up,
Along with us — can see a compensation:
The way is opening for a new elite
Of those who incarnate the liberal mind,
Discovering itself because the force
Of obscurantism has energized
What once was just a lazy prejudice
And turned its somnolence to a crusade,
Shrinking what was a wide, if witless, view
Into the eye-slit of a rusting visor.
Saint-Loup breaks up with Rachel. He will not
Forget her. She retains her influence
In his life, but her independent nature
Asserts itself as once it never could
When choked by necklaces that cost the earth.
She moves on, and becomes, after the war —
The war in which Saint-Loup, alas, is killed —
A famous actress, hailed in the salons
For her artistic stature, and not only
For being the close friend of the Duchesse
De Guermantes. And yet Rachel, in her splendour,
Is still for Dreyfus, as she’s always been.
The Faubourg and the brothel meet each other:
Perhaps like oil and water, but within
The same tall shining tumblers, to evoke
The drinks served by Lautrec at his soirées,
A knickerbocker-glory dynamite
With coloured layers. Swirling in the liquid,
Intelligence and sensitivity
Like interloping streaks of cloud are trails
Of storms sent to disturb a world. A war,
A war between the wars, is happening
Throughout Proust’s book, though all he tells us of
The Western Front is how the sky was lit
At night with flares and shellfire streaming up,
Drawn by the Gothas and the Zeppelins:
The bursts of colour in the neutral stars,
Bright tokens of what Paris had been spared
Because the vandal armies never came.